In the corner of my mind there is an idyllic memory of a perfect summer’s day spent saving hay in a sun-blazed, sweet-scented, field of gold in south Kerry. It is a scene as clear to me as if it were plucked directly from a Seamus Heaney poem or from Brian Friel’s ‘Dancing at Lugnasadh’. I can picture my cousins in their floral summer dresses, smiling and laughing and the men in their shirts, sleeves rolled up, directing the work of the haphazardly formed meitheal. My brothers, my sister and I were on our summer holidays, guests of my aunt and uncle on their small farm near Portmagee in Co Kerry. My auntie Mary ran a small shop and my uncle John worked as a blacksmith and farrier and in the summer months we were transported to this magical place where, in addition to being the recipients of overwhelming hospitality, we helped with going to the well for water, milking cows, turning the turf in the bog, stooking oats, and saving the hay.
The old saying was that “when the cuckoo sees the first cock of hay she flies away” and July was the time of haymaking. Dry weather was all important for the hay and when the signs indicated there might be a dry week ahead, my uncle John would tackle the pony to pull the old-fashioned mowing machine to cut the meadow flush with long grass. The metal mowing machine with its metal wheels had a finger bar with terrifying iron talons protruding to one side with a set of sliding teeth that cut the long grass with great efficiency. It also had a cast iron seat, perfectly moulded to the shape of the mower’s backside, and I can still picture my uncle perched high on the fixed seat as if magically suspended in thin air.
The following few days were spent spreading and turning the hay with pikes. My uncle also had a rotating hay-turner that was drawn by the pony and it tossed the hay back into the air and brought the wet grass to the top, allowing it to dry in the wind and the sunshine. With the weather fine my uncle would also cut the neighbours’ meadows and in the tradition of a meitheal, everyone came together to help each other out and save the hay. On those July days throughout our childhood and teenage years, we began as novices but soon learned how to handle a two-pronged pike and turn the hay with a quick flick or twist of the wrist. In this vivid picture of my mind, I can see a dozen souls of all ages, each with their pike in hand, each fully employed in turning the all-important hay to feed the cows and secure their future.
If the rain stayed off, the crescendo of the few days was when the pony once again pulled an ingenious rake that rotated around two discs and piled the dry hay into long swards. In this corner of Kerry, they did not make cocks of hay but much larger wynds of hay. The older neighbours set out the size of the round of the wynd. In turn everyone “pitched in” with their loads and the small mountain of hay grew in size. We learned how to gather a hefty load of hay on the pike, hoist it high over our heads and land it into the centre of the wynd. The best fun was when one of us would climb up into the centre of the wynd to arrange the pike loads of hay as they came in. It is a wonder that nobody ever got spiked by the sharp pikes as the loads arrived from all sides and the wynd grew higher and higher, to a height well over the heads of those loading from below. I can remember carefully sliding down the edge of the finished wynd that was easily twice my height, my fall broken by the soft tufts of hay that lay around the edges. These tufts came from raking the sides of the wynd with the pikes, shaping it and combing its strands downwards, forming an aligned outside layer that could easily dispel any rain.
Once all the hay was in place, a few lengths of súgán rope were made. A loop of hay fixed on a piece of wood was continually turned and as new strands of hay were added the rope grew longer, its strength a result of its continual twisting. The long ropes were tied into the bottom of the wynd, guided over the top with the aid of the pike and then pulled down tight and fixed into the other side to keep the wynd tight and secure.
The Kerry Dances
The best part of the day was when my cousins, Noreen and Maureen, arrived down to the meadow with refreshments. In the corner of the field, cushioned on the dry, soft hay, we circled around a bucket of lukewarm milky, sweet, tea, each of us dipping in and filling our cups, slaking our thirst. In tins and baskets, they brought an endless supply of freshly baked fairy cakes and slices of thickly-buttered currant cake.
My idyllic day making wynds of hay in Kerry is a memory shared with all my cousins who were treated to the same magical experience. I know that they will appreciate that in my mind it also has a soundtrack, The Kerry Dances, the party piece of my auntie Biddy, whose sweet gentle singing captures the sentiment:
“Oh to dream of it, oh to think of it, fills my heart with tears! Oh for one of those hours of gladness, gone alas, like our youth too soon.”